How policies end: not with a bang, but a whimper

Masimba Tafirenyika describes how dire the food security situation in Malawi has become:

Once again Malawi finds itself in a tight spot. A food crisis set off by erratic rains, rising food prices and economic hardships is slowly unfolding. For the first time in several years, the country’s ability to feed its citizens is at risk. Sadly and unexpectedly, Malawi has lost its hard-earned status as an agricultural success story — it used to produce enough maize for its people to eat and still provide a surplus to neighbours. Many are now wondering what went wrong and whether there could be lessons for other African countries.

More than 1.63 million people, or 11 per cent of the population, are facing severe food shortages, according to the World Food Programme, a UN relief agency. Malawi needed $30 million to the end of 2012 to cover the shortfall.

As Tafirenyika hints, this stands in stark contrast to reporting on Malawi over the past few years, where it was heralded as a shining example of how to tackle food security. Five years, ago Celia Dugger wrote in the NYT how the country’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, despite the protests of many, “ignored the experts” and subsequently dealt with the country’s hunger problems by drastically scaling up its fertiliser subsidy programme. Malawi subsequently enjoyed a spate of bumper harvests and many were quick to tout the large-scale subsidisation as being both a success and worth of replication in other countries. Most notable was the support of Jeffrey Sachs, who’s incessant belief that the fertiliser subsidisation was a policy holy grail led him to write an oddly-appreciative obituary for Mutharika, who died at the end of a thuggish, repressive and disastrous second term in office.

Meanwhile, hunger returns to Malawi, but we have not yet established a convincing narrative. Many economists (including a few on this blog) have pointed out, time and time again, that the fertiliser subsidy programme was fraught with pitfalls, both political and practical. While the recent crisis is probably too complex to fully substantiate these concerns, now would be an appropriate time for the fertiliser advocates to turn their attention to the food situation in Malawi, and begin to ask why. Otherwise, we risk touting a policy that might actually have been a complete failure, or at the very least lacked the sort of robustness that anti-hunger policies desperately need.

2 thoughts on “How policies end: not with a bang, but a whimper

  1. Luke Harman

    January 12, 2013 at 12:26pm

    I agree it’s absolutely crucial to investigate, understand and explain why at least 1.6m people in Malawi are facing severe food shortages. Given that this is happening alongside the implementation of the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), I can see how it might cause people to question it’s contribution. However, there’s a danger of falling into the trap of seeing the FISP as some sort of silver bullet, much like those media reports appear to. Most researchers and policy-makers tend to be somewhat more realistic in what the FISP, by itself, can do for Malawi and its people.

    That said, the available theory and evidence do point to the FISP as having played a very important role in addressing household food security and avoiding the hunger that had plagued Malawi in earlier years since the phasing out of input support. A good coverage is provided in this book (http://www.amazon.com/Starter-Packs-Cabi-Sarah-Levy/dp/0851990088).

    The fact is, so many smallholder farmers in Malawi simply cannot afford to purchase the inputs that would result in them being able to produce sufficient food for themselves. If we agree that it would be wrong to see people starve, the alternative in the short term is for government to import maize, which not only is an even more temporary fix, but is likely to be far more expensive, and even then people would depend on handouts as they would still not be able to afford it. Of course there are other options that already take place, such as food for work and cash transfers, but again these do not address the production-related challenges facing Malawi and do not appear a sustainable solution.

    The problem is that Malawi requires many other complementary investments in agriculture, not least improving irrigation to help tackle the dependence on rain-fed agriculture. The FISP never aimed to address these other issues.

    There are of course many challenges to the FISP as with any other government or private-sector programme/initiative. However, these are no reason to go against theory, historical precedent and evidence to suggest inputs should not be subsidised. In the case of Malawi, these challenges have actually been relatively well managed.

    Reading Sach’s article, he doesn’t deny the darker side of Mutharika’s rule. I think the main point he is making is that political leadership was required to overcome what became (and I think still remains) an ideological opposition to government “intervention” that input subsidies represent for some people. Indeed, for that I think the former President (among many others) should be applauded.

    There is already a fairly large evidence base on the FISP suggesting it has been a much needed policy. The problem is, there is such an awful lot of need for other policies too and Malawi does not currently have the means to do everything, which is why continued support from donors such as DFID is absolutely essential.

  2. Luke Harman

    January 12, 2013 at 12:31pm

    I should clarify, the book I referenced above does not deal with FISP but covers the relationship between food insecurity and the absence of agricultural input support. It also covers the Starter Pack, which was a precursor to the FISP.

    There are a range of papers on the impacts and evaluation of the FISP, including a number of very good ones by Dorward et al.. These are too numerous to reference but can be easily found through an online search.

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